Reprinted with permission
Mine leak jolts public
By Bobby Kerlik
Sunday, January 30, 2005
When the water gushed from an abandoned mine onto the streets of McDonald last week, Mike Meehan knew it was time to beef up his insurance.
"My wife and I talked about upping our policy before, but this event really sent up a flag," the 65-year-old said. "When all this water is gone and the ground dries out, something is going to happen."
More than 1 million homes in Pennsylvania sit atop abandoned mines such as the one that burst Tuesday along Liberty Street in McDonald, Washington County.
Less than 10 percent of those homes are insured against mine damage, said Edward Motycki, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's mine-subsidence section. Typical homeowner's insurance does not cover property damage from mine subsidence.
Affordable subsidence coverage is offered through DEP -- a $100,000 policy costs $88.50 a year, with senior citizens getting a 10 percent discount and commercial-property owners paying more. The importance of such insurance does not strike many property owners until there is trouble, officials say.
The DEP was swamped by phone calls late last week, with people from throughout the region inquiring about insurance. DEP officials answered 288 calls about subsidence coverage Thursday, and another 175 people had called by noon Friday.
"Typically, when we have a major subsidence we get a lot of calls. But this will die back down to around 10 to 12 calls a day," Motycki said. "There's nothing worse than seeing on the news a person crying and saying: 'I didn't know my homeowner's (insurance) didn't cover this.' "
There are at least 1,200 abandoned mines in the Pittsburgh coal seam -- defined as the rough triangle created by Pittsburgh, Wheeling, W.Va., and Fairmont, W.Va. -- said Joe Donovan, an associate professor at West Virginia University's Hydrogeology Research Center.
"Anyone above a mine or close to one should have this insurance," Motycki said. "Homes above abandoned mines have a potential for subsidence. Everyone in proximity to a mine should at least consider (insurance)."
DEP geologist Rich Beam said thousands of homes, including some in McDonald, could be sitting on as little as 10 to 15 feet of earth packed over abandoned mines.
"Some homes have very little substance under them," Beam said. "Usually, as you gain elevation, it puts more distance between the home and the mine."
Even after the mine blowout in McDonald, none of the houses suffered structural damage, and all qualify for insurance. Policies are granted as long as homes have not already been damaged by subsidence, Motycki said.
"I live five blocks from where this happened," said Marie Maximovich, 28, of McDonald. "I signed up (Wednesday). We've never had any mine problems before, but once the water drains, properties could sink."
Pennsylvania created the mine-subsidence insurance program in 1961, which today includes more than 53,000 policies. Profits from the self-sufficient program go into a fund to be drawn whenever necessary, Motycki said. As of June 30, the fund had a $43.1 million balance. The DEP pays out 20 to 30 subsidence claims annually.
Bobby Kerlik can be reached at email@example.com.
A look at mine-subsidence insurance coverage offered to homeowners through the state Department of Environmental Protection:
COVEREDGround shifts resulting from surface-mine discharge
Surface discharge resulting from a burst of water
Water from underground coal or clay-mine works
Damage caused by:
NOT COVERED Discharges from a man-made system designed to collect or conduct water
Damage caused by:
To learn more, contact the DEP at 1-800-922-1678 or call your insurance agent.